“You know you can’t seriously hurt me,” he said, resting his cheek against mine.
I tensed. “Then why am I chained?”
“Because getting kicked, punched, or clawed still doesn’t feel good,” he returned. “And while the others have been ordered to not touch you, it doesn’t mean they’ll be as tolerant as I am.”
“Tolerant?” I tried to push off the wall but got nowhere. “You call this tolerant?”
“Considering that I just spent time cleaning out and covering your wound, I would say so. And a thank you would be nice.”
“I didn’t ask you to help me,” I seethed.
“No. Because you’re either too proud or too foolish to do so. You would’ve allowed yourself to rot instead of asking for help,” he said. “So, I’m not going to get a thank you, am I?”
Thrusting my head back was my answer. He anticipated it, though, and I didn’t manage to hit him. He forced my cheek to the wall. I wriggled, trying to break his hold.
“You are exceptionally skilled at being disobedient,” he growled. “Only second to your talent of driving me crazy.”
“You forgot one last skill.”
“Yes,” I gritted out. “I’m skilled at killing Craven. I imagine killing Atlantians is no different.”
Hawke chuckled deeply, and I felt the sound all along my back. “We’re not consumed by hunger, so we’re not as easily distracted as a Craven.”
“You can still be killed.”
“Is that a threat?”
“You take it however you want.”
He was quiet for a moment. “I know you’ve been through a lot. I know that what I’ve told you is a lot, but it is all the truth. Every part, Poppy.”
“Stop calling me that!” I squirmed.
“And you should stop doing that,” he said, his voice rougher, deeper. “Then again. Please continue. It’s the perfect kind of torture.”
For a moment, I didn’t understand what he meant, but then I felt him against my lower back, and my breath caught as a wave of awareness stole through me. “You’re sick.”
“And twisted. Perverse, and dark.” The rough stubble of his chin dragged over my cheek, and my spine arched in response. He seemed to get even closer as his fingers spread over mine. “I’m a lot of things—”
“Murderer?” I whispered, unsure if I was reminding him or myself. “You killed Vikter. You killed all the others.”
He stilled, and the next breath he took pushed his chest against my back. “I’ve killed. So have Delano and Kieran. I and the one you call the Dark One had a hand in Hannes’ and Rylan’s deaths, but not that poor girl. It was one of the Ascended, most likely caught in bloodlust. And I am willing to bet it was either the Duke or the Lord.”
Who’d smelled of the flower that Malessa had carried in earlier that day.
“And none of us had anything to do with the attack on the Rite and what happened to Vikter.”
Gods, I wanted to believe that. I needed to believe I had not slept with the man who’d played a role in Vikter’s death. “Then who did?”
“It was those you call Descenters. Our supporters,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “There was no order given to attack the Rite, however.”
“You really expect me to believe the thing the Descenters follow didn’t order them to attack the Rite?”
“Just because they follow the Dark One, doesn’t mean they are led by him,” he answered. “Many of the Descenters act on their own. They know the truth. They no longer want to live in fear of their children being made into monsters or stolen to feed another. I had nothing to do with Vikter’s death.”
I shivered, believing what he said about his involvement and unsure why. But whether the Dark One actively led the Descenters or not, he was still the cause of Vikter’s death. They’d picked up his cause and acted upon it.
“But the others you claim. You killed them. Owning it doesn’t change it.”
“It had to happen.” His chin moved from my cheek, and then he said, “Just like you need to understand that there is no way out of this. You belong to me.”
My heart turned over slowly. “Don’t you mean I belong to the Dark One?”
“I meant what I said, Princess.”
“I don’t belong to anyone.”
“If you believe that, then you are a fool,” he taunted, pressing his head to mine before I could lash out. “Or you’re lying to yourself. You belonged to the Ascended. You know that. It’s one of the things you hated. They kept you in a cage.”
I never should’ve said anything to him. “At least that cage was more comfortable than this one.”
“True,” he murmured, and a heartbeat passed. “But you’ve never been free.”
“True or not.” And it was painfully true. “That doesn’t mean I’ll stop fighting you,” I warned. “I won’t submit.”
“I know.” There was an odd tone to his voice, one that sounded like…admiration. But that didn’t make sense.
“And you’re still a monster,” I told him.
“I am, but I wasn’t born that way. I was made this way. You asked about the scar on my thigh. Did you look at it closely, or were you too busy staring at my co—”
“Shut up,” I screamed.
“You should’ve noticed that it was the Royal Crest branded on my skin,” he said, and I gasped. It had looked like the Royal Crest. “Do you want to know how I have such intimate knowledge of what happens during your fucking Ascension, Poppy? How I know what you don’t? Because I was held in one of those Temples for five decades, and I was sliced and cut and fed upon. My blood was poured into golden chalices that the second sons and daughters drank after being drained by the Queen or the King or another Ascended. I was the godsdamn cattle.”
I couldn’t believe this.
“And I wasn’t just used for food. I provided all sorts of entertainment. I know exactly what it’s like to not have a choice,” he continued, and horror followed his words. “It was your Queen who branded me, and if it hadn’t been for the foolish bravery of another, I would still be there. That is how I got that scar.”
Without any warning, his hands slipped off mine, and he pulled away. Trembling, I didn’t move. Not for several long moments. When I turned around, he was already outside the cell.
If what he said was true…
No. It couldn’t be. Gods, it could not be.
Suddenly unbearably cold, I folded my arms around myself, crossing the chains.
Hawke stared at me through the bars. “Neither the prince nor I want to see you harmed. As I’ve said, we need you alive.”
“Why?” I whispered. “Why am I so important?”
“Because they have the true heir to the kingdom. They captured him when he freed me.”
I thought that the Dark One was the only heir to the Atlantian throne. If what Hawke said was true, it could only mean...“The Dark One has a brother?”
He nodded. “You are the Queen’s favorite. You’re important to her and to the kingdom. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with your gift. Perhaps it doesn’t. But we will release you back to them if they release Prince Malik.”
All of what he’d just said slowly seeped into my brain. “You plan to use me as ransom.”
“That’s better than sending you back in pieces, isn’t it?”
Disbelief thundered through me, quickly followed by that pulsing pain that came from my chest. “You just spent all this time telling me that the Queen, the Ascended, and my brother, are all evil vamprys who feed on mortals, and you’re just going to send me back to them once you free the Dark One’s brother?”
Hawke said nothing.
A broken, too-wet-sounding laugh left me. If what he said was true, it confirmed what was already becoming evident.
He didn’t care for my safety or well-being beyond making sure I was breathing when the time came to make the exchange.
I lifted my hand to my chest to ease the throb as another laugh crept up on me.
Hawke’s jaw flexed. “A more comfortable sleeping arrangement will be made.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, but he surely wasn’t getting a thank you from me.
His chin lifted. “You can choose not to believe anything I’ve said, but you should so that what I’m about to say doesn’t come as such a shock to you. I will be leaving shortly to meet up with King Da’Neer of Atlantia to tell him that I have you.”
My head jerked upright.
“Yes. The King lives. So does Queen Eloana. The parents of the one you call the Dark One and Prince Malik.”
Shocked, I couldn’t move as he turned to leave, but he stopped.
And Hawke didn’t look back as he said, “Not everything was a lie, Poppy. Not everything.”
Not everything was a lie.
The story about Hawke’s brother? The rest of his family? Farming his lands, and the caverns he used to explore as a child? That he’d been in love before and had lost? Or all the things he’d said about me?
Whatever he said that was true didn’t matter. It shouldn’t as I paced as far as the chains would allow, which was not very far at all.
After he’d left, I’d sat on the mattress and tried to sort truth from fiction, which had felt impossible. Somehow, even more improbable, I had drifted off to sleep. My mind hadn’t shut down, but my body had simply given out on me. I’d slept until the nightmares drove me awake, my screams echoing off the stone walls.
It had been so long since the memory of the night of my parents’ deaths had found me in sleep. That it would find me here was not at all surprising.